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Republican Primary Spurs Ag Subsidy Discussion

posted on January 27, 2012

Republicans -- especially those seeking the presidency -- have a few ideas of their own on how to grow the economy.
In not one, but two presidential debates in Florida this week, the four remaining candidates outlined their fiscal priorities and alternated criticism of their opponents with that of President Obama.
And in a brief exchange, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich "talked a little sugar" and offered his insight on factors influencing lawmakers, lobbyists and farm subsidies.

As the Republican primary calendar shifts south to Florida, a smattering of regional politics have seeped into the political discussion.  This week in Tampa, Florida, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich provided insight into the sugar lobby’s powerful influence inWashington.

Adam Smith, The Tampa Bay Times: “Speaker Gingrich, in Iowa you were a big supporter of ethanol subsidies. Here in Florida, sugar is a very important industry, and it’s subsidized, as well, with import restrictions, quotas. There’s a conservative movement to do away with these programs. In the case of sugar, critics say it adds billions of dollars to consumers grocery bills every year. What would you do about that?”

Newt Gingrich, Republican Presidential Candidate: “Well, I pretty enthusiastically early in my career kept trying to figure out how to get away from the sugar subsidy. And I found out one of the fascinating things about America, which was that cane sugar hides behind beet sugar. And there are just too many beet sugar districts in the United States. It’s an amazing side story about how interest groups operate.
In an ideal world, you would have an open market. And that’s I think that would be a better future and, frankly, one where cane sugar would still make a lot of money. But it’s very hard to imagine how you’re going to get there. I spent a lot of time trying to reform agriculture when I was speaker. And I would say it was one of the two or three hardest things to try to do because the -- the capacity of the agricultural groups to defend themselves is pretty amazing.”

Gingrich’s acknowledgment of ag industry lobbying power is especially significant in light of his aggressive stance against special interest groups from a litany of other sectors.  But Gingrich’s Republican counterpart, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, called for an end to all government agricultural support.

Adam Smith, The Tampa Bay Times: “Governor Romney, you’re getting some campaign support from sugar growers. It’s a very influential group in this state. What’s your view on the sugar subsidies?”

Mitt Romney, Republican Presidential Candidate: “Yeah, my view is, we ought to get rid of subsidies and let markets work properly.”

The brief debate over sugar supports riled some farm-state lawmakers who called the remarks from Gingrich and Romney as “misinformation.”

North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad, whose constituents produced 5.6 million tons of sugar beets in 2010, defended the federal sugar program this week. Conrad said: “There is no cost to the government at all from the sugar program. The sugar program is critically important to tens of thousands of jobs in this country. They say they care about jobs; how about jobs in ruralAmerica?”

According to Conrad, not only does the federal sugar program serve at no cost to taxpayers but enables USDA to limit foreign imports of sugar, control sugar sales and shift surplus imports to ethanol production in an attempt to stabilize prices.

Tags: ag subsidies agriculture news sugar